MILWAUKEE – Scott Tolzien stands outside a hospital room on the fifth floor of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, wearing a surgical mask.
A 12-year-old girl named Gabby stands on the other side, hooked up to an oxygen machine, with a football autographed by the entire 2013 Green Bay Packers team in her hands, and a huge smile on her face.
She is in Children’s Hospital because she needs a lung transplant, and she’s in an isolation room to prevent the spread of any germs into her body. After the two talk for a few minutes, Tolizen has a question.
“Can I give her a hug?” he asks the nurse.
When the nurse says no, because Gabby is in isolation and cannot have contact with anyone not cleared to be in her hospital room, Gabby’s father, Charlie, comes up with a different solution: The 26-year-old quarterback and the 12-year old girl give each other “knuckles” through a piece of paper.
Charlie has a request of his own for Tolizen. He brings out Gabby’s Packers’ jersey, and asks Tolizen to sign it. Her No. 12, Aaron Rodgers jersey.
“Don’t take it personally,” Charlie says with a laugh.
Tolzien happily obliges.
The visit is only 10 minutes long, but as Tolzien leaves to go to another room, both parties have huge smiles on their faces.
“I think we get a lot out of it from coming here,” Tolzien says. “We’ve been going long days since July 20, so we’re been kind of living in a bubble all season long, so it’s kind of nice to do something like this. It centers you. It puts things into perspective for you, and I know we have a blast doing it. I can probably speak for the guys that are here. It’s a fun experience.
“We were all a kid at one point or another, and I know when I was a kid and saw anyone, whether it was a high-school athlete or a college athlete, or a pro athlete, my face lit up. Those were my role models, and to be on that platform now, to be able to give back, I think you remember your days as a youngster, and you know what it means to them because I was there once too.”
This is not Tolzien’s first time visiting children in a hospital. The quarterback says has done it since his days at the University of Wisconsin.
“We used to get a group of guys every Friday of home games, and we’d go visit the [American Family] Children’s Hospital there,” Tolzien says. “When you’re in college, living in a bubble, we’ve all been there. And it was always just great to see the kids’ faces light up. I thought it was always great going into a game. Sometimes you just put so much into the game, and how many people are watching a football game, you forget there’s a lot more to life that just a football game on a Saturday.
“It was a tradition when I got there, and I know they still do it. So when I got there as a freshman, there was a group of upperclassmen that would go over there every Friday and so the torch has been passed along. And it’s still going on now, which is kind of cool.”
Tolzien isn’t the only Packers player gaining perspective at the hospital. Running back Johnathan Franklin, defensive end Datone Jones, tackle Aaron Adams and outside linebacker Andy Mulumba also are visiting. The five men spend almost two hours walking through the floors of Children’s. The kids who are well enough to leave their hospital rooms spend time with the players in the hospital’s many playrooms, playing bingo and painting and drawing pictures. Those who cannot leave their bed or room are visited by the players, but the children in isolation can only wave through the glass or talk from afar because of the “no-contact” rule.
“It’s really a blessing to be able to come here, and have an impact on kids’ lives,” Franklin says. “You think you really understand what life is all about, but then you see these kids in this position. I used to do this all of the time when I was at UCLA, go and visit the kids. And it’s the same feeling that I had there, that I have now.
“I think it allows you to appreciate life for what it is. Not to take things for granted. Not even complain, just enjoy and it’s just a blessing to be able to put a smile on their face and just learn from the kids and to see how they’re excited. Why can’t I be excited regardless of my problems. If they can smile, I can smile too.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.